Light at the End of the Road: Thomas Jefferson's Endorsement of Free Haiti in His Final Years

By Scherr, Arthur | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Light at the End of the Road: Thomas Jefferson's Endorsement of Free Haiti in His Final Years


Scherr, Arthur, Journal of Haitian Studies


Many historians and members of the public insist that Thomas Jefferson was a diehard racist who defended the justice of black slavery and opposed its abolition. However, at various times, even occasionally as president of the United States, and more often after he retired from office, he voiced a preference for sending Virginia's rebellious slaves, the type who were executed by the dozen in August and September 1800 after the famous "Gabriel's Rebellion" was crushed, to Haiti. The purpose of this article is to suggest that Jefferson was not averse to Haiti's existence as an independent republic. On the contrary, at the beginning of his tenure as third president of the United States in 1801, he suggested that slaves convicted in Virginia's courts of "conspiracy and insurrection" against the state should be deported to Haiti (at that time called "Saint-Domingue" or "St. Domingo" because it was still regarded as a French colony) to begin life anew as free men and women.

Despite the assumptions and charges of many historians, during his presidency Jefferson did not deliberately pursue an anti-Haitian policy. He was not personally involved in advocating the trade embargo that Congress imposed against Haiti in 1806 and renewed in 1807 for one more year. The primary advocate of this law was George Logan, a Pennsylvania Quaker Senator. Intimidated by diplomatic protests from the French minister to the United States, General Turreau, and the notorious French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, infamous for the "XYZ Affair" in 179798, Logan feared that France might declare war on the United States if the government did not act against Haiti. He introduced the embargo resolution against Haiti in the Senate, both in 1805 and 1806.1

Certainly, Jefferson never contemplated an invasion of Haiti to destroy its independence. He seemed to prefer keeping it out of the hands of European countries, whose leaders, pursuing Old World mercantilist policies, would try to bar U.S. trade with Haiti. Moreover, after Jefferson retired from the presidency, his son-in-law, Virginia's Governor, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., perhaps following the revered old man's advice, proposed in 1820 that the state legislature emancipate a certain number of slaves annually and transport them to Haiti. Although the Virginia assembly defeated Randolph's measure, Jefferson continued to advocate it in letters to correspondents in the northern states and elsewhere in the final years of his life. He considered it· a means to find justice for African Americans, give them a chance to prove themselves in a society where men of their color ruled, and simultaneously preserve the United States as a White Man's Country where democracy, peace and happiness, albeit only for white people, could finally be attained.

In old age especially, Thomas Jefferson became more and more convinced that the solution to the problem of southern slavery was the gradual emancipation of the slaves and their deportation to Haiti. When, amid the national crisis over Missouri's admission to the Union as a slave state in 1820, his son-in-law, governor of Virginia Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., proposed such a plan, Jefferson supported it from the sidelines, praising his "courage." "Altho' this is not ripe to be immediately acted on," he observed after the state legislature defeated the proposal, "it will, with the Missouri question, force a serious attention to that object by our citizens, which the vicinage of St. Domingo brings within the scope of possibility."2

Randolph's proposal for gradual emancipation, in his message to the Virginia assembly in December 1820, would be voluntary on the part of slaveholders. It was therefore less far-reaching than what Jefferson had in mind. Motivated by misperception of free blacks' indolence, race hatred, and involvement in fencing goods stolen by slaves as much as by hatred for slavery, Randolph charged that their practices were ruining "the Farmers of Virginia. …

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